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Reviewed by:
  • Northern Exposures: Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920-45
  • Sherrill Grace
Northern Exposures: Photographing and Filming the Canadian North, 1920-45. Peter Geller. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004. Pp. 280, illus. b&w, $29.95

In many ways Geller's Northern Exposures is ground-breaking. It is the first book to describe and document, with many superb illustrations, some of the extensive camera work done in the Canadian North; it is also the first book, to my knowledge, to provide a critique of certain key institutions and individuals whose images have constructed and conditioned southern Canadians' perceptions of the North. But I want to begin with one aspect of this book that deserves special praise – the illustrations. Rarely does a scholar garner any thanks for the often excruciating and painstaking work involved in finding, selecting, and reproducing illustrations for an academic book, and rarely is a publisher acknowledged for the beauty of design and layout in presenting illustrations. In this case, readers owe Geller and UBC Press much thanks. I cannot imagine this book without the reproductions of photographs and film stills. Moreover, each image is nicely subtitled and perfectly placed. Bravo!

Complementing the illustrations are descriptions of the documenting mandate and ambitions of such institutions as the Hudson's Bay Company and its journal, the Beaver, discussions of the role played in capturing the North on film by the churches and the Canadian government, and detailed accounts of the work of photographers and filmmakers like A.L. Fleming, L.T. Burwash, or Richard Finnie or of films like Nanook of [End Page 126] the North or The Romance of the Far Fur Country. I found the chapter devoted to Finnie of particular interest because Finnie is worth serious consideration as a filmmaker and as the 'unpaid propagandist for the Canadian North' (155). It is also in this chapter that Geller speaks most critically, and analytically, about the ideology reproduced and legitimized by film – notably the ideas of salvage ethnography, paternalism, and the 'masculinist gaze' (169). He names this power precisely when he notes that the 'all-seeing camera, travelling through Arctic waters ... to record and bring back visual documentation of the north, stands as a vivid metaphor for the extension of Canadian government authority in its northern territories' (167).

Geller concludes this study with an excellent bibliography, an item, like illustrations, that reviewers too often fail to mention. Particularly useful are his list of archival sources and his filmography, because he has done extensive primary research and located and screened more than fifty little-known items. Future scholars will be able to draw on this information and their own work will be made easier.

My complaints about this book are few and certainly not major. I wish, for example, that Geller had been a bit more attuned to the sexism of some of this film work (especially with Finnie) and that he had devoted more space to women's camera work in the North. The only female photographer he mentions is Florence Hirst, but there were others, one of the most interesting of whom was Mina Benson Hubbard. But Hubbard crossed Labrador in 1905 and her narrative, A Woman's Way through Unknown Labrador, first published in 1908, places it outside the time span included by Geller. Perhaps, in another book, he will dig further back in time or possibly come further forward to bring his view of the documenting process closer to the present. I also wish that he had had time and space to examine feature films and the work of the National Film Board, but that again would mean extending his parameters. Given his time frame and the wealth of material lying in archives just begging for discovery, he has accomplished a great deal. Most importantly, he has reminded us about a fascinating, powerful, and hitherto ignored (or taken for granted) aspect of Canadian heritage, and in the process, expanded our appreciation of the ways, as southerners, we have acquired what Glenn Gould once called our 'idea of North.'

Sherrill Grace
University of British Columbia


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pp. 126-127
Launched on MUSE
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